Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Author: Steven Secker

Trinity 24A (22-Nov-20)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Ezekiel 34:11-16,20-24 God the true shepherd
11Thus says the Lord God: ‘I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down’, says the Lord God. 16‘I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.’

20Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: ‘I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.’

23‘I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd, 24and I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.’

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Just listen to the righteous anger! The religious leaders of the day had been so inept, and drawn the people’s focus away from God’s message, that He wasn’t prepared to send another messenger for them to ignore or kill. God would seek out the lost sheep Himself.

The so-called shepherds of the flock were more like the hirelings to which Jesus referred (John 10:12), because they had let the sheep wander and get lost, and they didn’t seem concerned.

Through Ezekiel God told the people, and especially the religious leaders, that the sheep would be sought in ALL the places to which they had been scattered. They would be looked after and fed appropriately, instead of being fed rubbish or left to starve. God would do the shepherding because those charged with the job had failed so miserably. Those who should have known better are accused of pushing and shoving the flock and driving them away. No wonder God was angry!

When we think of some of the gospel stories we can see the same righteous anger, and for the same reasons. Jesus didn’t just drive the money-changers out of the Temple; He effectively drove out those who had corrupted the people for their own benefit, power and prestige.

Have we learned anything? No way!! Do we need to be reminded about politicians who don’t like election results, or those who are blind to the risks of Covid-19, or don’t think of what can be achieved by supporting less polluting industries? Do we need to be reminded about churches which are more interested in protecting their images than addressing serious issues of misconduct and subtle abuse, or churches that profess to be pastorally caring when the evidence says much to the contrary? Please don’t misunderstand me: there are plenty of people in churches working hard for the good of the community and being thwarted by those higher up the power chain who say it shouldn’t be done.

Bishop Jack Spong raised an interesting point about focus on status in the churches. When someone is ordained he/she is called “Reverend” – the revered one; when that person is made Dean of a cathedral the title becomes “The Very Reverend”; a bishop is “The Right Reverend”; and an Archbishop is “The Most Reverend”; the Pope is “His Holiness” and the head of the Greek Orthodox Church is “His All Holiness”. Do any of these go out to meet the down-and-outs in mufty – civilian clothes that make them look just like everyone else around them – like Jesus did when he washed the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper? I know of one Australian bishop who did, and it changed him for ever. He realised how much the church over which he presided had strayed from its ways like a lost sheep without a shepherd.

So often through the scriptures we are called to repent and to re-focus on what God wants, not what we want. While the mainstream churches complain about a lack of clergy they frequently reject those called by God and who challenge the status quo. Is that because they would show up how scattered the flock is, by bringing them into the stable and teaching them to love and obey God? We are ALL called by God to spread the Good News and to be faithful shepherds, but it seems a number of those to whom leadership roles have been given are lacking the skills or focus, just as the shepherds in this passage from Ezekiel.

I would love us to be focussed on what God wants us to do, rather than keeping the whistleblowers quiet, though our scriptures, canonical and contemporary, show we still have a lot to learn from Ezekiel.

St Luke 20A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Luke 10:1-9 The Mission of the Seventy
1The Lord appointed seventy and sent them on ahead of Him in pairs to every town and place where He Himself intended to go. 2He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” 6and if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Jesus knew His scriptures, often quoting them or referring to them. Jesus was often portrayed in the New Testament as being a new, and greater, Moses, or one of the prophets. If we go back to the Exodus story (24:1) we hear about Moses taking seventy elders onto the mountain when he went to talk to God; in Numbers (11:16-25) we hear about Moses choosing seventy to share the load of work he had; the Sanhedrin itself was composed of seventy men; so to portray Jesus as being greater than those who had gone before Him, He had to send out seventy as lambs going into the territory of wolves. The seventy whom Moses had chosen were to prophesy, but only two did so within the camp. Since the Israelites were on a long journey through the desert, to whom did the other sixty-eight prophesy? I’m not offering an answer. Jesus’ seventy, however, were sent ahead of Him into the towns where He intended to go – a sort of advance party to prime people for the coming of the Lord and a new revelation.

Jesus often used agricultural ideas to get across His point. “The harvest is plentiful” could have had the obvious meaning of it being a good time to gather an abundance of grain, but there is no indication in the passage that it was time to gather grain, and Jesus was referring to the people who were ready to become followers and would need encouragement and support. Even today, we frequently hear people claim that the labourers – the ones who are called by God to make disciples of all nations – are few, but is that true because the Church authorities, like their counterparts in the first century, are keen to have labourers who follow the dictates of the authorities, not those of God?

Jesus tells these seventy people to get on the way, not to procrastinate, not to be worried that they might not have the words or the eloquence to do the task at hand – and don’t forget that they are being sent like lambs among wolves. Their lives will be at risk; they will be attacked for no other reason than their message conflicts with the message of those in charge of the areas in which they will work. Despite all this, they were to not carry money – so they couldn’t find a way home, they were to not carry any extra clothes, they were to not carry extra footwear, and they were to avoid contact with potential thieves and murderers along the way – in other words not greet anyone on the road. Trust and Obey, for there’s no other way. When we set out on a journey like this God will provide our needs – though not necessarily our wants. If they met with people who are receptive to the message they carried – we carry – they would be housed and fed, they wouldn’t need money to buy things, clothes and shoes would be provided. By offering God’s peace to those who showed hospitality that peace would be shared if it were welcomed, but would be unharmed if it were rejected. Whichever way it was received those sent forth would be able to bask in the peace of God.

Being accepted by a receptive host would have meant, in those days, that the evangelists’ stay would be welcomed for as long as they needed to remain in the one place, and the next stage of the journey would be marked by generosity in providing for travel needs along the way. The instruction for what to do within a town or community which accepted these people was to stay, to eat whatever was provided for them – which would fly in the face of Jewish food restrictions whenever they met with Gentiles – and to heal those who needed it. In other words, they will know we are Christians by our love. That expression of Christian love would be an outward sign that the Kingdom of God was at hand.

This passage ends before an important corollary to the welcoming town, for verses 10 and 11 tell them that if the town doesn’t welcome them they should clear the dust off their feet and walk away telling the townsfolk that God is not happy – Luke compares the people with those in Sodom. Some of us have had personal experiences like that, in today’s world.

St Luke – Sirach

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Ecclesiasticus 38:1-4, 6-10, 12-14 Concerning Physicians and Health

1Honour physicians for their services, for the Lord created them;
2for their gift of healing comes from the Most High, and they are rewarded by the king.
3The skill of physicians makes them distinguished, and in the presence of the great they are admired.
4The Lord created medicines out of the earth, and the sensible will not despise them.
6He gave skill to human beings that He might be glorified in His marvellous works.
7By them the physician heals and takes away pain;
8the pharmacist makes a mixture from them. God’s works will never be finished; and from Him health spreads over all the earth.
9My child, when you are ill, do not delay, but pray to the Lord, and He will heal you.
10Give up your faults and direct your hands rightly, and cleanse your heart from all sin.
12Then give the physician his place, for the Lord created him; do not let him leave you, for you need him.
13There may come a time when recovery lies in the hands of physicians,
14for they too pray to the Lord that He will grant them success in diagnosis and in healing, for the sake of preserving life.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Just to save confusion, Ecclesiasticus is not the same as Ecclesiastes, and is often called [Wisdom of Jesus son of] Sirach. This passage was included in the international Revised Common Lectionary for its reference to physicians, given that the 18th of October is St Luke’s Day, and Luke was a physician.

What hit me first with this passage is the similarity to medical approaches in the 21st century. In the current Covid-19 era, where we are dependent on medical staff for advice and treatment to minimise the impact of the pandemic on our lives, we should take heed. “Honour physicians for their services” means honour them; don’t tell them they don’t know what they are talking about, don’t tell them we don’t need to wear masks when those physicians are telling us that’s one way to reduce the risk to us and to others, don’t belittle them because we can’t see the serious nature of an illness or injury. The physicians’ gift of healing comes from God, through all the research and development that has gone on through the centuries. We know as much as we do about the human body and how it works because physicians in the past have made discoveries which would astound most of us, and yet there are untrained people who think they know better, and whose concern is more about themselves than the safety of others. Think of how doctors and surgeons work together to restore our health when we have been attacked by bugs or violence, and we must admire their skills.

Of course, there are medical staff who believe they are God’s gift to mankind, taking this passage too literally. Some say that God has nothing to do with the advances in medical science, totally ignoring the evidence that those advances are because God has given us the skill to investigate and lead up to improvements in the way we treat people. Some doctors are also drawn by their positions of power and prestige to go against their Hippocratic Oath, or its later equivalent, to protect the lives of their patients to the best of their abilities, though the vast majority keep to it. With one exception, physicians are human, not divine, but their skills should still be recognised and appreciated. No prizes for getting that the exception was Jesus.

The Lord created medicines out of the earth, so we shouldn’t despise them. Some medicines come directly from plants or animals; others are made by humans who have studied the impact and interaction of certain chemicals, all derived from the earth at some stage, on our bodies and the bugs which attack us. Some people despise them by saying we don’t need them – again showing disrespect for the people who designed them for our benefit, some despise them by using them in ways that were not intended – biological warfare and substance abuse come to mind. I admit that I’m a reluctant drug taker, but when I know the medical condition which needs to be treated, and understand the need for a particular drug, I am less reluctant, but still mindful of the fact that God gave us bodies which are incredibly resilient and able to heal themselves to a large extent, and drugs are frequently only a help in the process of healing. There are, of course, times when our lives depend on the use of some drugs because our bodies have been weakened too much to fight alone.

Even pharmacists get a mention in this passage, because they, too, have a vital role in our healing. Thanks to their work the physicians can heal us and take away our pains.

All this is very practical, if we are listening, which is often the biggest problem. If we are listening to God then the work of healing us all continues through our lives and the lives of those who follow us here on earth, but how many of us really do listen to God? How many of us pray to God for healing, and for the hands and minds of physicians to do God’s work in that healing? Sometimes God works through the hands, the eyes, the minds, and the strengths of people to whom He has given the gift of healing; other times He asks us to make changes in our own lives so that we are healed in different ways. Our problem might be the way we interact – or don’t interact – with others, or the way we think only about ourselves.

Who is the greatest physician? This passage was written nearly 200 years before Christ was born, so He wouldn’t get a specific mention from Sirach, but we could do much worse than trusting in Jesus to heal us when we pray authentically. When we are sick, we should put our health in the hands of the greatest physician of all time, follow His instructions, and give Him a real chance to heal us.

Trinity 19A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Philippians 4:1-9

1My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord, my beloved. 2I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. 7The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Given that this passage is not being read as the whole letter would have been, and so we are not provided with earlier references, I have taken out parts of verse 1 which need the link. I don’t have a problem with a reading Bible translating αδελφοι (adelphoi) as ‘brothers and sisters’ because that would have been Paul’s understanding, but a study Bible should keep to the original text and translate it as ‘brethren.’

It’s not clear from the snippet from this letter that Paul was writing from prison, awaiting trial which could result in his death; yet he oozes love and joy. Clearly this church which he set up has been doing well, for it is his joy and crown, but with Paul in prison and pressure from elsewhere in the community which would have had many opposed to Christianity, there could have been doubt among the believers. Hence Paul’s instruction to stand firm in the Lord.

Paul was a great supporter of women’s leadership in a time when women weren’t even counted, and their role was, to use a 20th century description, “at home, barefoot and pregnant” looking after the needs and desires of the men. Euodia and Syntyche aren’t the only women who were prominent in Paul’s ministry and the churches he established. These two had struggled with Paul in Philippi, probably because they were women as well as getting people to convert to Christianity in a hostile world. The unnamed “loyal companion” could have been any one of many people, but the lack of identification allows us to put in place the unsung heroes of our own churches.

The popular Christian song “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice” is a direct lift from this passage. Despite his dire circumstances, Paul urges everyone to rejoice always. If you break a leg, rejoice; if you win the mega-lottery, rejoice; if you get a bad dose of Covid-19, rejoice; if you pass your exams with flying colours, rejoice. We may not see what there is to rejoice about it, but God can, and it will turn out for good.

I can see people, now, saying “Rejoice always” is impracticable, and “if the Lord is near I can’t see Him,” but it’s not that difficult to rejoice even if things who awry, and the Lord is always right beside you, in the worst of times, so why not ask for help when things aren’t going the way you want them to go? Maybe that’s because God wants things to go differently. Maybe God also wants us to sing joyful songs as if they inspire us to be joyful, instead of singing them as a dirge. Too often we sing hymns and songs as if we have an audience of thousands when the congregation we are in is only twenties and thirties. Why should Christians have a reputation for being dull and not enjoying fun? Why have we lost the spontaneity for being joyful in our everyday lives? Is it because we’ve become so self-centred and lost contact with our maker?

Hello worry-warts. Sorry, Paul wants you to not worry but “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” When we give thanks for what we have, and ask God to make good from bad, we are moving in the right direction. Even the next part of this passage will be familiar to anyone who frequents a church: “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in the love of Christ”. That’s because God’s peace is far more encompassing than human ideas of peace. God’s peace is not an absence of war, but a celebration of unity and respect for all of creation, even those elements we abhor.

When we listen to what Paul is asking us to do, rather than just hearing someone read those words in a service of worship and let them float into and out of our consciousness, we quite rightly should feel challenged. Think only of things which are true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, excellent, commendable, and worthy of praise, and ignore the rest. That list is hard to achieve all the time, but achieving it will bring us closer to God.

Trinity 18A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Exodus 20:1-5a, 7-10, 12-20 The Ten Commandments

1God spoke all these words:
2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me.
4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them.
7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses His name.
8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labour and do all your work, 10but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.
12Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
13You shall not murder.
14You shall not commit adultery.
15You shall not steal.
16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
17You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.
18When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’ 20Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.’

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Those who are attentive will realise that I had included the first part of verse 5 and the whole of verse 10, both of which are excluded from the set reading for the day.

Ten biblical precepts in Hebrew

Let’s start with what this passage is generally known as: The Ten Commandments. They aren’t! A better translation of the Hebrew would be “Ten Commitments”. The traditional Jewish breakdown of the list even has, as the first on that list, only verse 2, which is a statement, not an edict or agreement. This passage is deeply affected by the Deuteronomist, whose philosophy was “do the right thing by God and you will be blessed; do the wrong thing and you will be cursed.” The second part of verse 5, and all of verse 6 have been excluded because of this. These verses from Exodus were a setting in stone – pun intended – of the already existing covenant between the Hebrew people and God, as are those in Deuteronomy 5:6-17. A comparison of the two versions is quite instructive. When we commit ourselves to what we consider a just cause we will automatically choose to take certain actions and avoid others, so here are the conditions which the Israelites needed to respect in order to get back to a fruitful relationship with God. Though they have been worded, especially in English, as “thou shalt do …” or “thou shalt not do …” they are not dictatorial instructions from God. When we were created we were given free choice, so we can choose to honour the commitments, or we can choose not to do so. The consequences, of course, can be detrimental to our own existence, or that of the people around us. English is a funny language. Our grammar is based on that of Latin and Greek, which used inflections to tell us vital information in a verb. For some reason we have lost those inflections, so, unlike in most other languages, we use the same word “you” to represent a single person and a group of people. Consequently, we lose sight of the true meaning of a passage like verse 2. Here the Hebrew word is singular. God is talking to each person, one on one, engaging each person and establishing a personal relationship. He is not talking to everyone as a group.

At this stage of their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land the Israelites would remember their time in slavery, so when they are reminded of that very personal experience, and the escape from the Egyptian forces which sought to take them back into slavery, it is quite reasonable that God should expect them to stop looking for other gods. Of course, other gods would not get a mention if there weren’t any being worshipped in the camp, so who had already slipped up thanks to the tempter? That bit’s easy.

One scholar whose comments on this passage I have read warned about preaching a single sermon on all ten commandments. Fortunately, this isn’t a sermon.

If you have a respectful, loving relationship with God you will not make, for yourself, an idol and worship it, but what is an idol? In the context of the Exodus we are likely to think of the golden calf which Aaron built from the jewellery in the camp, but idols can be something far more subtle than that. What about money? What about sport? What about other activities in which we might engage. There’s nothing wrong with them if our personal relationship with God is more important to us: the issue is focus. The Armadale City Council organises The Perth Kilt Run each year. It starts at 8.30 on a Sunday morning, when I am, and many others are, in church, so I wrote to the Council asking if it could be organised for later in the day occasionally. Thanks to my approach the prospect of having the event later in the day is being considered. Without that approach people like me would be faced with a choice of church or the event. How often do we fail to voice our concerns when we should? Until Covid-19 struck, the current Australian government was focussed on money, not on the needs of the less well-off in our society. It’s still learning that helping everyone will result in better conditions and a healthy economy. One day the penny might drop.

When I see pictures supposedly representing the devil with a pitch-fork, horns, and red eyes I know the artist is presenting something for the audience, but can you really imagine letting ourselves be distracted by someone with that appearance? The good looking, intelligent, and attractive person who uses Christ’s name inappropriately after getting our confidence is far more likely to pull us astray. Why don’t we say to such people “please do not take Christ’s name in vain”? Is it because we fear the repercussions of standing up for our faith?

Christians, in general, keep Sundays as the day for regular worship of God. Jews and Seventh Day Adventists keep Saturday for the purpose. Muslims keep Friday as their holy day. In each case, depending on when you start your count for the week, each one is worshipping God on the seventh day. Roman Catholics also pick up on the Jewish custom of the day starting at sundown, not midnight, to have Mass on Saturday evening. We could all keep to the seventh day plan, and some do by worshipping on other days.

Have a look at verse 10, which I deliberately included here. It talks about the man of the house – remember this is a patriarchal society so the ‘you’ (singular) will be interpreted as the man – not working. It also determines that neither son nor daughter, nor male or female slave, not even the livestock and aliens, should work, but what about the man’s wife? There’s no mention of her. When a choirmaster arrived at the Pearly Gates he was asked what he did during his earthly life, and having told St Peter was greeted with “come in and choose your harp, you’ve had your share of hell.” I wonder if the same might have happened to the women who didn’t get to have the Sabbath off.

Some years ago I ran a ten week study on the Commandments. The notes for the one which preachers almost always avoid, the seventh, are being re-written in the context of changing attitudes, but the rest are still worth reading.

As to the other commitments, “watch this space”. Next time this passage appears in the lectionary I’ll complete the sequence.

Trinity 17A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Matthew 21: 23-32 – The Authority of Jesus Questioned

23When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him as He was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ 24Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ They argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” 26but if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet,’ 27so they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ He said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30;The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Taken out of context, as this passage is, we are likely to associate the challenge to Christ’s authority with His teaching in the Temple, but if we realise that Jesus has just been in the Temple casting out the money-changers and healing the blind (Matthew 21:12-14), we see the question in a different light. This wasn’t just anyone asking a question, it was the Chief Priests – think of it as the Archbishops and Bishops – and the elders of the faithful people – our lay church leaders – challenging His authority to cast people out of the Temple and to use it as a healing venue. Given that those Chief Priests and elders were only allowed to be in their positions of pseudo-authority because the Roman forces were using them to keep the people from causing disruption, it isn’t surprising that they were anxious to find out where He thought His authority came from, and who gave it to Him. Authority can reside in a position of power, but even people elected to that position – Presidents, Prime Minsters, Chief Priests, etc. – cannot assume the authority and often consider they have more authority than they actually have.

In response to the question, which was also part of a plan to remove Jesus from His sphere of influence and ultimately send Him to the Roman powers as a trouble maker who needed to be executed, Jesus challenged them on the authority of John’s baptisms. If the priests and elders admitted that John’s work was on instruction from heaven then they would be asked why they had not submitted themselves to baptism too; if they claimed it originated as a human response, then the crowds would be vocal against them. It was a question which they couldn’t answer safely, and so they muttered under their breath “we do not know” as they acknowledged defeat.

Well guys, if you couldn’t answer that simple question what’s the point of me telling you where I got my authority to do the things you complain about?

Jesus very frequently talked in parables: stories which have a face value and which have a much deeper implication for those who need to be brought to heel. The Chief Priests and elders were not dumb fools. They knew when Jesus was having a go at them, but He did it in such a way that they couldn’t prove it.

Though those questioners had already conceded defeat on this occasion, Jesus wasn’t finished with them. The story of two sons would have reflected many others in Scripture – Cain and Able, Jacob and Esau to name just two cases; and the reference to a vineyard would have resonated with the audience too. One son says “No” but recants and goes to work for the father. The other son says “Yes” but doesn’t honour his commitment. It’s very clear to the religious leaders which camp Jesus has them in, and they don’t like it one bit. Unusually, Jesus then hits them with a brick. He likens tax-collectors and prostitutes to the first son, who did the right thing, and so will enter the Kingdom of God ahead of those who are likened to the second son, those who made a commitment to follow God’s directions and lead the people to a life of faith in God, but went their own way because it gave them power and prestige. He answered His own question about the authority of John, and criticised the leaders for not taking heed even when they had seen what John’s baptism produced. It’s a reminder of the adage “there are none so blind as those who WILL not see.”

Are we blind because we don’t want to see what God is calling us to do? Are we like the first son, or the second?

Trinity 16A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Exodus 16:2-15

2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’

4Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.’ 6So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, ‘In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?’ 8Moses said, ‘When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.’

©2013 Amy Hintze

9Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” ’ 10As Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12‘I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” ’

13In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say “everybody does …” I’d be very rich. If I had a dollar for every time such a statement is true I probably wouldn’t be able to buy a cup of coffee. Sweeping statements are rarely true, and claiming that “the whole congregation … complained against Moses and Aaron” is just as likely to be well off the mark, but the important point is that many were complaining. It’s not long since this congregation of Israelites was delivered from the hands of the Egyptian Pharaoh and his army by crossing the Red (or was it ‘Reed’?) Sea. They had been quick, then, to praise God for their deliverance, and equally quick to drop their allegiance when day-to-day travelling along the tedious journey to the Promised Land created boredom and a sense of being deserted. We live in a time when instant gratification is demanded by those who cannot, or don’t want to, be patient. This congregation will arrive at the Promised Land in God’s time, but the people want to be there in their time. Sound familiar? It wasn’t Moses and Aaron who brought them out of Egypt, though they were the physical leaders on the journey. It was God who led them out of slavery in Egypt, but it was God’s servants who were bombarded with accusations of leading the people into the wilderness to die. God is an ever-faithful parent, loving His children and looking after them in their best interests. Just like loving caring parents today, sometimes the children didn’t like what the parent was doing, and didn’t like the experience. Hey, folks, God looks after those who do things for the good of others, but if we stray, not only does He have to fix up the damage we have inflicted, He then has to coax us into seeing where we went wrong, and invite us to fix ourselves. In other words, He educates us, rather then teaching us. The difference is that He leads us to the answer, and doesn’t give us the answer, so we have to think. I wish our “Education” Departments would take heed of this advice.

God agrees to provide for the daily needs of the people, as if He hadn’t already been doing that, but He sets a test for them. Remember the parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16b-20) where an abundance of grain led the landowner to consider building a big storage space? Here, God tells Moses and Aaron that He will provide bread for the people, but they must collect only enough for that day, or, on the sixth day, for two days. Even in the abundance they must not collect more than they need. Are we listening?

According to verse 6, in the evening, that is before sun-down marks the beginning of the new day, the people will know that it was God who brought them out of Egypt. How would that be? We know what comes in verse 8, but it hasn’t been mentioned, and it isn’t until verse 12 that the Lord actually tells Moses that He will provide meat. Disqualified for a false start chaps!

Moses and Aaron are right, of course, in saying that it is not really them that the people are complaining about, but God, who is about to show that He has heard their complaining. Divine intervention will save the people, despite many of them going astray, losing focus, and leading others on a path away from their maker.

With a large group of people – the Egyptians were concerned about the number of Hebrews getting larger than their own – to feed, there would have been a multitude of quails landing in the camp each evening. Quails are small birds without a lot of meat on them. Each adult would probably want at least two to stave off hunger. Would this air-drop of meat supply for the travelling public bring about a return to worship? Hardly! In the morning God provided manna in the desert. The people didn’t know what it was, or where it had come from, until Moses told them it was the Bread of Heaven on which they should feed. Would they obey God’s instruction on how much to collect? This passage ends before we get the answer, but I guess most of us would have a good idea of whether they behaved themselves or not. If you really don’t know the answer, read verse 20.

Trinity 15A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Matthew 18:21-35 Forgiveness

21Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26The slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27Out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt, 28but that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii. Seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” 29Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you,” 30but he refused. Then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 31When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32His lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34and in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

How many times should I forgive somebody who sins against me? There is dispute about the response from Jesus, not in the need for forgiveness, but in the number. Some manuscripts suggest seventy-seven times, others seventy times seven. Those who take the scriptures literally would encourage us to have notebooks in which we record each act of forgiveness, and on the 78th occasion (or the 491st) refuse to forgive. That’s a horrible distortion of the message from these few verses. Not only should the forgiveness relate to one type of sin – so not counting ‘you lied to me when you were four years old, and you forgot to buy a loaf of bread for me when you were 30, so I’ve forgiven you twice’ – but the number is not supposed to be taken literally anyway. In the culture of the day seventy-seven would have been a very large number, by which time you would probably have lost count, so best not to even start. The important part of this message is that we should forgive, and forgive, and keep on forgiving, and that we should separate the sin from the sinner. Those who practise this separation on a routine basis can love the sinner while hating the sin – and forgiving someone who has sinned against us does not necessarily mean that the sinner doesn’t have to pay a penalty for the actions. One man who lost the rest of his family in the Port Arthur massacre forgave the man who committed all those murders on that fateful day. The events which led to that forgiveness were far more confronting than those which most of us will ever encounter. Can we do the same?

If we haven’t paid enough attention to the irrelevance of numbers, then the generosity of the king will take us by surprise. Did you think this was about the slave? A ‘talent’ was worth about 6000 denarii – which, by the way, is where the ‘d’ comes from in the old “pounds-shillings-and-pence (£sd)”monetary system – and a denarius was about a day’s pay for a labourer. Hence, this slave owed the king wages he would take over 20 years to earn. How did a slave get to owe so much? The answer is simple: he didn’t. As Jesus told this story it wasn’t the actual number which was important – Jesus had a habit of inflating numbers to make a point – but the relative size of the debt to that owed by the second slave, and the lack of preparedness to forgive someone else, even when we have been forgiven a huge debt. We should put that into the context of our 21st century lives, and ask ourselves if we need to forgive someone’s debt to us. I find it somewhat incredible that someone should be sent to prison until a debt is paid, when being in prison stops the person from earning the money to pay the debt, but that’s how many Australian jurisdictions still work.

Of course, our debt may not be monetary, but in kind. Has someone done something for you, or me, and not been acknowledged for that kindness? I think God would applaud the “Pay it Forward” principle.

Trinity 14 A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Exodus 12:1-14 Institution of the Passover

1The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbour in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 12For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgements: I am the Lord. 13The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

14This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Let’s first set aside the misinterpretation of Scripture that claims it to be a historical record as we might expect in the 21st century. The Torah, the first five books of our Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament, are theological documents attempting to explain how things came to be the way they were when they were finally written down, many centuries after the contents came into existence. The Jewish calendar, unlike the common one we use today, starts close to the northern hemisphere’s spring equinox. Since this is held as the beginning of the year there needed to be some explanation for why it was so.

A lamb, after dressing, will yield about 15kg of meat, or enough for 30 to 40 people. That’s an awfully big family! No wonder the instruction is to share it with neighbours if there’s too much meat. Hold your horses – sorry, lambs. This animal is to be free from blemishes – according to whom? and it can come from sheep or goats. Did I miss something? A small goat is a kid, not a lamb – but here again comes the 21st century understanding, instead of that from many centuries before, and from a different culture. Let us beware of falling into the trap of thinking our way is the only way and it has always been so.

This food for the beginning of a journey into the unknown, has to be slaughtered at twilight and eaten that same evening. How long does it take from slaughter to serving as a meal? Even if you took the newly slaughtered animal and roasted it immediately it wouldn’t be ready to consume for several hours. Given that the instructions include cooking the meat with head and organs included, it would take even longer.

Having destroyed the instructions as unreasonable in the circumstances let’s remember that this isn’t a recipe extract, but a theological statement about preparedness for what is to come. This is an overnight feast, since the people are told to burn anything which is still left by morning. Taking into account that the Jewish ‘day’ starts and finishes at sunset, this meal occurs during the first day of the Exodus; and while they are eating in preparation for their departure God’s Spirit passes over the land of Egypt and kills the firstborn, human or animal, in every house except those marked with blood on the doorposts and lintels.

Just think what this means for Egyptian Jews or Christians today? It’s not Good News.

The original Passover was a one-night event, after which the Hebrew people, who were already prepared for travel and to leave behind their slave lives in Egypt, started a long journey to the Promised Land. Each year, the Jews celebrate Passover as a seven, rather than one, day event. For Christians, the Passover was the time when Jesus instituted the Last Supper. We commemorate the event with special services, and possibly a Seder meal, on the Thursday before Easter. Note the different word. For Jews, Passover is something they live through every time the celebration is held; for Christians it’s a one day event to remember something in the past. If we Christians took the same approach as the Jews, would our commemoration of the events surrounding the last hours of Christ’s life on earth become a celebration of what He achieved for us? Would that empower us to go forth and make disciples of all nations? When we prepare ourselves for Easter next year are we going to be ready for a journey into the unknown, guided by a God whom we trust explicitly, or are we going to sit back and mark the event as we would another birthday? This story tells us of a people of faith saved from the hands of people who worshipped other gods. Are those who worship money, sport, personal ambition, power, drugs, or any of the multitude of other ‘gods’ keeping us from celebrating what Jesus bought for us with His life? If so, what are we doing to be prepared for our passover?

Trinity 13A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Matthew 16:21-28 Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

21Jesus began to show his disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you’, 23but He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
24Then Jesus told His disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me, 25for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26What will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? or what will they give in return for their life?
27‘The Son of Man is to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.’

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Jesus lived in a region of Roman occupation, and violence was just a normal part of everyday life, especially if anyone dared to challenge the authority of the Roman governor. Torture and crucifixion were common in that environment. The disciples had grown up in that sort of world, where one powerful force would overrule another and take charge, so it’s hardly surprising that Jesus was constantly reminding them of a better way, but the better way hadn’t sunk in. When Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah (Matthew 16:16) there was likely an expectation that Jesus would take on the Roman authorities and use His power to overthrow them. The first problem with that is that the use of violence to overthrow a power, and that is what would have been what most people at the time thought was needed to get rid of the Roman occupying forces, would only breed a new power struggle, and more violence. That’s one reason why war is so senseless, and why those who want to dominate our current world with force are only breeding more of the thing we need to rid this world of: violence. It appals me to hear that some current and some former service personnel in the Australian Defence Force are running an Instagram campaign promoting violence because that is so counter to Christ’s teaching and example. The second problem is that Jesus had been teaching the disciples a better way to live. Love conquers all. “Love your enemy” Jesus said. Have yourself labelled as a resister by not resisting.

It’s hardly surprising that Jesus would be subject to violence from within the religious establishment, considering He was often highly critical of those very people, and challenged their authority. Peter, on the other hand, couldn’t see how Jesus would be able to achieve what He proclaimed if He were subjected to such torture and a horrific death – and while we’re at it let’s not forget that those who were crucified would have been totally naked, unlike the sanitised pictures we see. Peter couldn’t image such a denigrating, humiliating death being part of the Good News. How often do we fall into the same sort of trap? How often do we argue against what God wants to do because we don’t like it, or can’t (won’t) see it? How often do we allow others to dictate what we do, and how we do it, when we should be proclaiming God’s message to all?

What did Jesus say to the one who had just proclaimed Him to be Son of Man, and the Messiah? “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus wasn’t condemning Peter for his attempt to save Christ from the cross, but condemning Satan, working through Peter’s problem in accepting the inevitable. There’s a real lesson for us there. Jesus separated Peter, one of His most ardent followers and someone able to listen to God, from the influence of Satan, who was taking Peter’s weakness and using it to attack Jesus. Can we separate the sin from the sinner in the same way? Our contemporary society can’t. I can think of many people who have been brilliant in their own way but have done something seriously wrong, and their great works have been discarded as well as them, and I can think of many others who have been treated similarly when their greatest failure is to have a different opinion from the majority. That’s what happened to Christ, except that we try to remember His good deeds, and try to explain away those bits which are difficult to accept.

Set your mind on divine things, not human things, and we stand a chance of redeeming the world. Do the reverse and you will be a stumbling block for God – though God will win in the end, so why fight?

What did Jesus mean by asking His disciples to deny themselves and pick up their cross to follow Him? It’s something which slips off the tongue easily and is gone before we think what it really means. Looking at Christ’s own example, and as followers we are challenged to follow in His footsteps, we can see that self is not the most important aspect of life. I think of the podium at major sporting events: in the middle is “I”, to the left, as we face the medal winners, is “S”omeone important to us, and on the right is “N”obody in particular. That spells sin. Instead of thinking of ourselves first, and others last we should reverse that process and think of everyone else before ourselves, except that we have a duty to care for our health, and not neglect it lest we cannot serve others.

There is great satisfaction in helping others, and not much in looking after oneself at the expense of others. We sacrifice the enjoyment and fulfilment in our lives when we ignore others, and that is what Jesus was railing against. When we encounter Christ again our work in looking after others will be rewarded, and that should be important to all of us.

We might think that the final verse in this passage indicates Jesus’s expectation that His second coming would be within the life-span of some of His disciples, but what if we consider seeing the “Son of Man coming in His kingdom” as having our eyes opened to a realisation that God’s Kingdom is here and now, and is all around us? Let us wash the paste off our eyes and see what God has given us.

Trinity 12A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Romans 12:1-8 New Life in Christ

1I appeal to you all, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

As happens with many contemporary public statements, when we take a passage of scripture out of context we put ourselves at risk of falling into a pit of misinterpretation and bad guidance. For the sake of the reading making sense, and for no other, I have removed some words from the English translation, though a passage like this should never be left without some background information to help us see what Paul was trying to achieve. In some churches it is not unusual for the readings to be introduced by context-setting comments. This is one passage which would benefit from that if the sermon isn’t going to fill people in on the background.

Through chapters 9, 10 and 11, Paul had pushed his understanding of the grace of God and what God was willing to do to build the relationship with us. Now it’s time to put some of that understanding into practice. While it may be good to explain parts of scripture for our wider knowledge, or in a study context where we look at the whole of the text over a number of weeks, none of the writers wanted their readers to just take on board what had happened without it transforming their lives in some way. Hence a vital question for us to ask is “What is the implication of this understanding for us, on our lives, in the current environment?” That is where this reading sits.

God expects us to have a quality relationship with Him. To establish and maintain that relationship requires us to acknowledge the great Creator as the source of our being, and that of the whole world in which we live. Unlike the literal interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis God’s creation continues to this day. There’s a joke about God agreeing that one second on His time scale is like 10000 years on ours and saying that He will give the petitioner what he wants in “a minute”. Every birth is a miracle, and a creation of God from the egg and sperm provided by the mother and father, irrespective of species. Every interaction between species and between plants and animals comes about because of God’s creation allowing for food cycles, creation and decay. Even the fine balance of how our bodies process food and extract what we need – often tiny amounts of trace elements – and how those needs are provided for, has been programmed by an all-knowing Creator whom we should honour and respect.

Hence Paul encourages the Roman Christians to consider their own bodies as a means of showing respect to God. The message, of course, applies to everyone, in every age, including our own. We might think that our world today is corrupt, with many people falling for selfish ways and having no sense of community requirements. That’s particularly relevant with the way the willingness of a small minority to ignore restrictions designed to get lives back to some sense of normality in the Covid-19 era are causing significant pain for the vast majority. If only that minority would conform to Paul’s exhortations we would be returning to a more normal life much more quickly than we are. It may seem that the answer is obvious, but what did Paul really mean by not letting ourselves be conformed to the world? What is it about the world today which is sick in the sight of God? Have we let our defences down and succumbed to the ways of the world? Do we jump to conclusions too quickly? Do we think that we are better than someone from a different culture, skin colour, language or political persuasion? Do we ridicule people because they are different, or have different ideas from ours, rather than respecting them as contributing to the well-being of the human race? Let us discern God’s will, not our own, and, by transforming our own lives, transform the lives of others.

In typical Paul fashion he gives his readers examples of how they can look at what they are doing, and how they can improve their relationship with God. By God’s grace some of us have a gift of prophecy, some have a gift of teaching, some of leading, some of being compassionate. I could add some of us have a gift of being able to tolerate the harsh sun, or to being able to think of abstract things – maths for example – or to read maps without having to rotate them. Though I’ve shortened the list here, Paul was known to go on and on, and on, about the various gifts which we can be given. Each is complementary, not better than another. Each should be respected as contributing to the benefit of the whole.

Where do we sit? The ways of the world often appear to be very attractive, and suck us into a life away from God. Those gifts we have been given by God are not just for our benefit, and we should share them with others who might have greater need for them, whether we know it or not. This is really Paul’s message: look at your own life, because that is all you can change, and see if you need to repair some aspects of the relationship you have with God, and see if God is calling you to take some action which you have yet to take.

Trinity 11A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Matthew 15:10-28

10Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ 13He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind, and if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’ 15Peter said to him, ‘Explain this parable to us.’ 16Then He said, ‘Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer, 18but what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles? 19Out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’

21Jesus went to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon,’ 23but He did not answer her at all. His disciples came and urged Him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,’ 25but she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish,’ and her daughter was healed instantly.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Over the centuries leading up to the time of Christ the Jewish religious establishment had developed several rituals which they insisted on people observing. One of those was the ritual cleaning of hands before eating food. Just as with the older rules of some foods being considered not safe to eat because they were associated with various forms of sickness, so too, with the cleansing of hands. Does it remind us of the instructions which have been pushed hard during 2020 as we cope with Covid-19 infections being spread because we pick up the bug from somewhere and have no defence against it. Let’s not forget that the scientific understanding we have about germs didn’t exist 2000 years ago. Jesus wasn’t against the idea of washing hands before eating food. He would undoubtedly have seen the impact of people eating food with contaminants on the hands, but He was very much against the rituals which had been forced on people. Telling His audience that eating without the ritual cleaning wouldn’t cause problems was always going to get up the nose of the Pharisees, and Jesus would have known that. The disciples, on the other hand, appear not to realise that people will often take offence about the least important matters when there is a suggestion that their own approach is not wise. Christ’s comments that ‘every plant not planted by God will be uprooted, and describing certain people as the blind leading the blind into a pit, will have been seen as direct criticism of the religious leaders. Looking at the track record over the centuries since then shows that we have learned little: we have not ‘listened’ or ‘understood’ (v10).

Doubting Peter, always prepared to show he doesn’t understand what Jesus is about, needs clarification, just like we do, but are afraid to ask, or too often we’re told our questions are silly, or we should know, or they’re ignored by those who can answer but don’t want to.

Allowing for the problems of getting infections because we don’t wash hands well enough, Jesus reminds us that food goes into our mouths, passing through our digestive system before the waste is disposed of in the sewer, and so cannot defile us. On the other hand, what comes out of our mouths as we speak, or what actions we take, are directed by the heart, and humans have an unfortunate tendency to speak and act inappropriately. When we tell others to do something because it’s in our interests, or protects our power base, we are defying God and misleading the people. How we try to control others for our own benefits determines our level of defilement.

So we move to the story that many avoid, because of the way Jesus talks to a woman, but we shouldn’t be afraid. This is early in Christ’s ministry, and He was focussed on the lost sheep of Israel, rather than expanding to include non-Jewish people. The woman who pleads with Jesus was a Canaanite, who would be used to dogs, as pets, eating at the same time as the family, and picking up the scraps, whereas the Jews wouldn’t allow dogs anywhere near the feeding family, but if we look closely at what she said, we can note that she was aware of who Jesus was. She addressed Him as “Lord”, respecting His status as a rabbi, she called him “Son of David” thereby claiming kinship through the Davidic line, and she knew that He could show mercy for her. She didn’t have her troubled daughter with her, but she recognised that Jesus could heal the child all the same.

The disciples want her sent away because she was crying out and annoying them, and they, as Jews, didn’t want anything to do with her. The Greek verb κραζω (kradzo), which gets translated as crying out, or screaming, also has a connotation of being like a crow’s call, which can be penetrating and annoying. Were they also reacting to how she sounded as she tried to get Christ’s attention?

When Jesus did respond it was in a way which was typical of Jewish interaction with Canaanite people: “I have come for the lost sheep of Israel, why should I waste the food on you?” The text doesn’t indicate to us if He was responding directly to the woman, or to the disciples, but it does show Christ’s humanity, and it provides an opportunity for her to come back at Him, and show Him that His mission wasn’t limited to the Jews. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from the master’s table”. In other words, even though you might think of us as low lifes, we can still listen to, and benefit from, the Lord’s words and healing, and we can still appreciate Him for who He is.

Her persistence has paid off: her daughter is healed, and Jesus celebrates that He has found someone with faith strong enough to counter the arguments put forward from Jewish culture.

If we turn this into a 21st century story, based in Australia, we can see how people of different cultures, or with different ideas, whether they have lived here for 50000 years or 6 months, can be mistreated by those who hold the keys to power. How do we treat people who are different from us, or who bring a different approach to a passage of scripture?

Trinity 10A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Matthew 14:22-36: Jesus Walks on the Water

22Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and go on ahead to the other side of the Sea of Galilee while He dismissed the crowds. 23After He had dismissed the crowds, He went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, He was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25Early in the morning He came walking towards them on the lake. 26When the disciples saw Him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ They cried out in fear, 27but immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is me; do not be afraid.’

28Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus, 30but when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased, 33and those in the boat worshipped Him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

34When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. 35After the people of that place recognised Him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to Him, 3636and begged Him that they might touch even the fringe of His cloak; and all who touched it were healed.How long, O Lord?

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Last week’s gospel told us the story of the feeding of the 5000, which was reportedly only the count of men, not of the women and children who made up the rest of the crowd. The disciples, having cleaned up twelve baskets full of remnants – but not having done anything with them – are told to get into a boat and head for the distant shore while Jesus makes sure the crowd dissipates. Having accomplished all He needed to do in that place Jesus makes time to be alone with God, and, like any introvert, to recharge His battery. Crowds can be tiring, and can make too much noise for God to be heard. Extroverts, please note! This was one of many occasions on which Jesus disappeared from view so He could spend time with God. Those who want to follow in Christ’s footsteps, as any good Christian should, need to take time out for God.

It was dark; it was windy; the waves were creating quite a spray; yet Jesus came walking on the water, in the middle of the lake, or Sea of Galilee. No wonder the disciples were terrified. I think I’d need some clean underwear too! Despite them having spent time with Jesus, learning His ways and His teachings, and getting a sense of who He really was, to see a human figure walking across the water would have appeared very much like seeing a ghost. I don’t know how effective it would have been, but Jesus continues towards them and tells them not to be afraid. They were already afraid before He spoke. Surely speaking to them would make them more afraid, not less. Most English translations take the Greek εγω ειμι (ego aimee) and give us “it is I” when good English grammar, as distinct from the Greek grammar, needs “it is me.”

εγω ειμι is The Great “I AM”, not only of the Hebrew Scriptures but also of Christ’s own discourse with the disciples, in which He said “I AM the bread of life”, “I AM the way”, “I AM the truth”, and more.

Peter was still unsure of what he was seeing, so blurted out for Jesus to call him across the water. With eyes firmly focussed on Christ, and having accepted the invitation to come to Him, Peter sets out to meet up with Jesus. While his focus is on Christ he succeeds in his efforts, but as soon as his concentration is taken up by what he is doing he begins to sink. Anything is possible with God, even walking on water, but once we lose sight of Him we fall for everything that can go wrong. What does that say to us when we don’t follow the teachings of Christ, or the example He set with the foot-washing, and the establishment of the Eucharist?

Peter, the one held up as a founding father of the Church, failed to keep his focus on God, and had to be rescued, again, and again. How many times was Peter rescued by Christ? Let’s just say “a lot”. In Matthew 8 Jesus was asleep in the stern of a boat when a storm raged, and after He was woken He rebuked the wind, and it stopped, so why did He not rebuke the wind this time, before He got to the boat? Doing so would have been just as effective for the disciples as calming the storm when He had reached them. Was their declaration that Jesus is the Son of God truly a revelation for them, or a response to seeing someone calm a storm as quickly and easily as Christ did for them? We may never know until we get a chance to ask in the next life.

I was trying to locate Gennesaret on a map of the region in the time of Christ, and to work out where the earlier gathering might have been, but there are different renditions of where the town might have been. That, of course, is the analyst in me wanting to get an accurate picture of where things happened, but what happened is far more important than where it happened. Jesus was recognised – despite His habit of disappearing His fame went before Him and He couldn’t escape being known. Not only that, but also people were so sure of His power to heal them that they only needed to touch the hem of His dress (robe) to be healed. Does that remind us of the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years (Matthew 9:20)? Even just her touch of His robe was picked up by Christ, who felt the healing power go from Him. Those who succeeded in touching Him or His robe were healed, such was their faith. We don’t have the luxury of having Christ visiting us in the same way, or do we? Those who walk as Christ can often heal just by their presence and people listening, and we won’t know if Christ is in the person next to us in the street, or in the supermarket, or at a sporting event – where they can be held – unless we are open to that possibility, and thinking of others rather than ourselves.

Trinity 9A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Psalm 17

1Hear my just cause, O Lord; give heed to my cry; Listen to my prayer, that comes from no lying lips.

2Let judgement for me come forth from your presence; and let your eyes discern the right.

3Though you search my heart, and visit me in the night-time, though you try me by fire, you will find no wickedness in me;

4My mouth does not transgress, like the mouth of others, for I have kept the word of your lips

5My steps have held firm in the way of your commands: And my feet have not stumbled from hour paths.

6I call upon you, O God, for you will surely answer: incline your ear to me, and hear my words.

7Show me the wonders of your steadfast love, O saviour of those who come to you for refuge: who by your right hand deliver them from those who rise up against them.

8Keep me as he apple of your eye: Hide me under the shadow of your wings

9From the onslaught of the wicked: From the enemies that encircle me to take my life.

10They have closed their hearts to pity and their mouths speak proud things.

11They advance upon me, they surround me on every side watching how they may bring me to the ground,

12Like a lion that is greedy for it prey, like a lion’s whelp lurking in hidden places.

13Arise, O Lord, stand in their way and cast them down; deliver me from the wicked by your sword.

14Slay them by your hand, O Lord, slay them, so that they perish from the earth: destroy them from among the living.

15But as for your cherished ones, let their bellies be filled and let their children be satisfied: let them pass on their wealth to their offspring.

16And I also shall see your face because my cause is just: When I awake and see you as you are, I shall be satisfied.

Text © A Prayer Book for Australia, alt, Used with permission.

The set reading for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary time, also known as the 9th after Pentecost or Trinity 9, only includes verses 1-7 and the last (15 or 16 depending on your version of the psalm), but I have chosen to include the whole psalm as it speaks loudly against injustice and abuse.

Jesus warned us not to think we will be exempt from persecution. We’ve heard and read much about persecutions over the centuries, be they Romans attacking Christians in the first century, Christians attacking non-believers during the Crusades, Hitler attacking the Jews in the lead up to and during the second world war, and we expect to hear about those and many other movements in a troubled world. However, when the persecutions come from those much closer to home they can be unexpected and devastating.

How do we respond when someone in our own church community takes offence because of something we might have said or done, and wants us to take no further part in that community? How do we respond when members of our own family go on the attack because we might not have lived up to their expectations? How do we respond when those in authoritative positions, be that in work places, churches, social groups or wherever, refuse to have open discussions about problems, and try to address them?

Leonard Sweet, in his book The Bad Habits of Jesus talks about duologues, where what comes out of mouths “is a projectile, laser guided to its target by unabashed political and moral correctitude aimed to shut down, not open up, conversations.”

When we are confronted by duologues we might well resort to Psalm 17 to find some respite from the disrespectful onslaughts we have to endure. It doesn’t matter where we are, whether the group is secular, religious or neither, we can hardly avoid cases in our lives. If I started listing examples from my own life I’d still be going at Christmas. So what do we do?

The Psalmist’s plea is to a God with whom he – given the era I presume it was a ‘he’ – has a personal and effective relationship. Clearly the writer believed he had a good relationship in which he did the right thing by God as much as he was able, because he invites God to search him even at times when he is most vulnerable. “My cause is just and comes from lips that don’t lie, so please come and tell us what is right”. Do we have such confidence in our talking to God? Are we willing to expose the innermost secrets where we might not be as truthful to our fellow humans as we know we must be with a God who knows those secrets before we admit to them?

When it comes to claims like “My mouth does not transgress, like the mouth of others” I can hear many people suggesting otherwise, especially those whom the psalmist considers “others.” However, it is not for us to condemn, only for us to ask God to act in a way which brings about reconciliation with the divine will, and if we think those “others” have transgressed we have a responsibility to ask God to intervene.

There is confidence, here, the God will respond, and there will be action to bring an end to the persecution. How many times have we heard comments such as “God doesn’t answer prayers”, with the additional rider from atheists “because God doesn’t exist”? Do we give in to such comments? I hope not.

When we feel that we are being persecuted, especially by those closest to us, we need to ask God to protect us as He would the apple of His eye, and we need to express the feelings of being surrounded by those have no pity, and want us to stop drawing attention to their failings. If we have confidence in our relationship with God we can surely ask for divine intervention, though we, in civilised countries which respect the sanctity of life, might ask for the “others” to have a “Road to Damascus” conversion instead of being killed.

If we have confidence that our cause is just then we will have no problem seeing God face to face, and feeling a sense of satisfaction. Is my cause just? I’ll let God be the judge of that, but when I see abuse, torture, murder, irresponsible behaviour in a Covid-19 setting, and others, I believe I will be with the vast majority which thinks those actions to be unacceptable to our Creator.

Trinity 8A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Genesis 29:15-28 Jacob Marries Laban’s Daughters

15Laban said to Jacob, ‘Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?’ 16Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. 18Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.’ 19Laban said, ‘It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.’ 20So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

21Then Jacob said to Laban, ‘Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.’ 22So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast; 23but in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. 24(Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) 25When morning came, Jacob realised it was Leah, and he said to Laban, ‘What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?’ 26Laban said, ‘This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. 27Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me for another seven years.’ 28Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Is it a case of deceit, or one of comeuppance?

Last week the revised common lectionary gave us the story of Rebekah having the twins Esau and Jacob. Being the first-born Esau had a “birth-right” which allowed him the lion’s share of his father’s estate when Isaac died, and the right for a special blessing as responsibility for the household was handed to the elder son. “Jacob” is the Hebrew equivalent of “taker” or “supplanter”; and “Isaac” is Hebrew for laughter. When Esau came home at the end of a day’s work so hungry that he thought he was dying, an astute Jacob used his culinary skills, and Esau’s hunger, to get his older brother to pass on the birth-right, much to Esau’s displeasure when he had recovered. Furthermore, some years later, Jacob had connived with his mother to deceive a by then blind Isaac into believing that he was giving his elder son the special blessing before he died. That’s one theory. Another is that Isaac knew that Esau didn’t deserve the blessing he would receive, but without being ‘tricked’ custom wouldn’t allow him to give the blessing to Jacob, so he went along with the ruse as that let him do what he wanted without being seen as a rule breaker.

With the birth-right and the blessing now his Jacob absconds and goes to Haram, which was where Abraham had left, hoping to meet up with Rebekah’s brother, Laban (“white”). In the lead up to today’s reading Jacob shows his willingness to break the rules yet again, so that, when Laban’s daughter, Rachel, appears the well is already accessible for her to get water, though it is Jacob, showing his prowess, who actually waters the flock, and ahead of the customary opening of the well when all have arrived. Jacob is already smitten by his love for Rachel, and goes with her to meet her father, his uncle, and to work for him so he can be close to Rachel. Ahh! Play some nice romantic music.

The custom in Haram is that the oldest daughter must marry first, but Laban isn’t going to let Jacob know that. He agrees that Jacob can work seven years for him in order that he might marry the love of his life. One common custom in my upbringing was that a man would ask his potential father-in-law for the hand of the appropriate daughter in marriage. Indeed, my son-in-law-to-be did exactly that some months ago, but would any of us, these days, be willing to wait seven years?

So Jacob toils for seven years in the expectation of getting to marry Rachel, after which Jacob, justifiably in our eyes, asked for Rachel to be his wife. The trickster is about to be tricked. Laban’s elder daughter, Leah, still isn’t married, and custom requires that she marries first.

Weddings, at the time, weren’t the half-hour ceremony followed by photos and a celebration meal before the bridal couple go off to start their honeymoon, like they tend to be today. These were major celebrations, lasting a week, and with people coming from afar to participate at some time during the festival. On the first night of festivities Jacob is presented with Leah, not Rachel. She is heavily disguised with a veil, but you would think that, unless the sisters were very much alike, spoke alike, and smelled the same, Jacob would have realised before going to bed with her. Alas, he might have been under the influence of too much alcohol and food, and didn’t realise he had been conned until the next morning. Got him!

As if he were the totally innocent party, Jacob complains to Laban about being deceived. Only now does Laban tell Jacob the custom of having the first-born daughter marry before a younger daughter. A deal is done between the two tricksters: after making it look, during the time of the festivities, as if nothing was wrong, Laban allows Jacob to take Rachel as a second wife on condition that he works for him another seven years. No, there was nothing “wrong” at the time about polygamy: indeed, it was common. It wasn’t until the Greeks and Romans began dominating the Ancient Near East that monogamy became the norm.

All this, so far, has to do with misbehaving men who should have known better, but what of the women in the story? Rachel and Leah were ‘bought’ by Jacob working for Laban, and verse 24 mentions the maid Zilpah being given to Leah. Even Jacob’s request to Laban: “Give me my wife …” shows that Laban owned Rachel (and Leah). Such treatment of women was common in that era. Hopefully we have a more respectful approach and consider the woman’s choice and desires, not just those of the men, or am I too much of an optimist?

We can read much into the story. Jacob, as the deceitful one early in his life tries to run away but his sins catch up with him. Laban outfoxes Jacob by getting him to marry Leah before Rachel, and, later in this story Jacob outfoxes Laban to take daughters, maids, children, herds and money, only to be outfoxed again by his own children who sell Joseph into slavery. Some call it karma. The treatment of women says a lot about how their roles have changed over the centuries since this story was written, but have we really made any progress?

If you want to read the reflection on Romans 8:26-39 see

Trinity 7A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Romans 8:12-25

12Brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body and you will live. 14All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

© livingthelectionary

18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24In hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what is seen? 25If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Through his promotion of, and respect for, women in the churches he formed, Paul was clearly as inclusive of women as he could be in the very patriarchal society of the first century. It is thus appropriate, given that political correctness and the feminist movement now deny us the long-established use, in English, of male pronouns in a generic sense, that the Greek word αδελφοι (adelphoi) is translated in the NSRV as “brothers and sisters”. I have no doubt that Paul would have been including the women as well as the men.

Paul declares that we are debtors; but despite telling us what we are not debtors to, never tells us what he considers we are debtors to. Just like a good educator, leading people towards an answer but never giving it to them, he leaves it to those in the audience to ponder over, and to work out for themselves, where that debt lies.

We are made of body and spirit. The body, the flesh and blood of our mortal appearances, can lead us astray. We are tempted to seek and acquire things which are transient and please us, without consideration for others, and too often we succumb to those temptations, in the process separating ourselves from God. Paul’s reference to dying has nothing to do with the cessation of the processes which keep our bodies functioning, but to the death which comes from being separated from God. On the other hand, if we allow God’s Spirit, working within us, to direct us, then we will nurture that relationship with God who continues to feed and nourish us. Those who had become Christians in the early churches, and even some of us in 21st century churches, might feel as if we have bonded ourselves in slavery because of the rules and regulations which being part of a particular church might impose on us – you must dress like this; you must speak like this; you must address the priest like this; you must like music like this; children should be seen and not heard. The list goes on, but that is not what Paul wants his audience to think. Far from being forced into a restrictive relationship with “the owner”, becoming a Christian is like being adopted into an unconditionally loving family, with God as the head. Many of us have never experienced unconditional love; some even deny it is possible for humans because their own experiences are far from the love which God quite willingly gives us, but God is love, and loves all of us unconditionally.

Being adopted into God’s family allows us to call Him “Father”, and to share with Christ in the abundances which are offered, but it doesn’t give us the right to avoid temptation, or hurt, because of the evil which abounds where God’s love isn’t allowed to enter. Yes, we will suffer for the sake of the Good News, but not in the same way as Christ Himself suffered. Commenting on the restrictions which Covid-19 has required of us, a young male from Broadmeadows (in the north of Melbourne) revealed an appalling lack of appreciation and care for older people, as if they were dispensable because they were passed their “use by” date. People continue to suffer and to die because of the lack of concern for others displayed in such a comment. I’m sure that God is crying because this suffering and these deaths would, to a large extent, be avoided if people around the world stopped thinking of themselves more than others. Let’s turn that around and tell Satan to leave everyone alone.

Throughout our lives we strive to do ‘better’ and we tolerate suffering and pain when we can see the ‘better’ future. That is precisely what Paul is picking up on when he says that the sufferings of the present time pale into insignificance when compared with the glory in the life hereafter. Just as growing up from being a newborn baby through the toddler stage and on into spiritual adulthood our eyes are opened to the wonders of this world, what the Spirit foresees is our discovery of what it is like to be ‘children of God.’ Several respected commentators note Paul’s reference to labour pains. Why is that surprising? Not only are there many references in scripture to feminine images of God, but also Paul’s churches had a significant number of female leaders.

Have you ever yearned so much for something you expect to occur that you groan, outwardly or inwardly, in anticipation? That is what it was like for the early Christians, looking forward to the second coming of Christ, which they expected in the their own lifetimes. Just as last week’s reflection on the Parable of the Sower made a distinction between hearing and listening, so, here, Paul makes a distinction between hoping for something and anticipating it. Let us be patient in our hoping that we might return to a society where we are all concerned for each other.

If you want to read the reflection on Matthew 13:24-30 and 36-43 see

Trinity 6A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Matthew 13:1-23: The Parable of the Sower

1Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3He told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4As he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil, 6but when the sun rose, they were scorched and withered away because they had no root. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Yet other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!’
18‘Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart. This is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Jesus goes out of the house, presumably where He was staying, and walks to the side of an unnamed lake, but crowds of people gather round Him to hear His words, so He gets into a boat, leaving everyone on the beach, and starts to talk to them. I know how to project my voice quite some distance, without shouting, and I would be reluctant to try to talk to a large group of people in the open air, with natural sounds abounding, but to dwell on the impracticality of this situation would be to detract from the meaning of the story about to unfold.

This passage is commonly known as the Parable of the Sower, and most will think the title refers to the person mentioned in the story sowing seed, but if we focus on that aspect of the story we might as well call it a parable of the soils. Jesus knew full well that any competent person charged with sowing seed to grow a crop would make sure all the seed landed in good soil with a good chance of not only surviving but also generating a worthwhile crop. Despite that, He starts with the sower being careless enough to throw some seed on the path, where it would be trodden on and eaten by birds. Some of this sower’s seeds fell on rocky ground – not too unreasonable when you’re trying to push the boundaries to get more crop, but still a little irresponsible. Next we have seeds which fall among thorns. Were they visible when the seeds were being thrown, or did they grow up at the same time, and take over control. Only then do we hear about seeds which land in good soil, with an abundance of produce, rather than the mediocre results common in the era.

Many of those who would have heard this story would have cringed at the idea that the sower was being irresponsible, or wasteful, or didn’t care for the value of the resources he was using. However, and this is consistent with the explanation Jesus gave to His disciples, if the sower is God, and the seed He sows is love, then the extraordinary generosity associated with expressing His love for the down-and-outs, for those whose faith has little foundation, and for those who are caught up by the evil around them, can be seen with the scattering of seeds. We might be reluctant to make an effort to reach out to those whose circumstances are less fortunate than ours, but God isn’t, and we are called to follow His example.

As with all the parables, there is a surface story which people will hear, understand, and even note. Here there is the responsibility to ensure that the best crop is generated from the seed available. Farmers in the Western Australian wheat-belt wouldn’t be counting each grain as they plant thousands of hectares of wheat, but they still follow the practice of trying to ensure each one has good enough soil around it to produce a good crop. The wise sower of fields in the first century would want to avoid the pitfalls in that level of the parable. However, Jesus wasn’t on about good farming practices. Spreading the Good News to people who have no comprehension of the message is like throwing seed on a path. First you have to prepare the way. We all know people who live on rocky ground, where Good News can be cast off because something more interesting is available, and you don’t have to be an avid reader of news stories to hear about people who have been led astray by those who have no regard for others. What we may miss is that the abundance of the crop for seed planted in good soil is at least a magnitude greater than what would have been expected at the time this story was written. God’s love abounds. The NRSV ends this part of the parable with “Let anyone with ears listen.” The Greek verb ακουετω (akoo-eto) can mean let (the one) hear, but can also mean “let (the one) listen to understand.” We can hear without listening, but we can’t listen without hearing. Listening requires that we pay attention and take on board what we have heard. If we don’t understand we might ask questions, but that won’t happen if we only hear.

Let us then listen to the parable of the sower, for we are all sowers. If the Good News we have falls on the pathways and the receiver doesn’t understand any of it then it’s too easy for the message to be corrupted and lead the person astray. If our sowing is on rocky ground then without tilling the soil to ensure good food for the seed it will wither as soon as it gets challenged in life. If we choose our scripture passages to serve our own purposes, biases and prejudices then the receiver will be led astray, but if we plant our Good News seeds in fertile ground, and tend to it, then we could have churches bursting at the seams with new converts and people enthusiastically sharing their experiences of God’s extravagant love. Which church do we attend? Notwithstanding the problems of Covid-19 restrictions, poor sermons, poor music, poor liturgy, a welcome mat but no genuine welcome, and no social life in a parish will turn away any enquirer looking for the Good News, but good sermons, good music, good liturgy, genuine welcoming and a vibrant social life will attract others. Which church do you want to attend?

If you want to read the reflection on Genesis 25:19-34 see

Trinity 5A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Genesis 24:34-67 (excerpts): A wife for Isaac

34Abraham’s servant said to Laban: 35“The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys; 36and Sarah, my master’s wife, bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. 37My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; 38but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’”

42“I came today to the spring, and said, ‘O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! 43I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,’ 44and who will say to me, ‘Drink, and I will draw for your camels also’ — let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.”

45“Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water-jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, ‘Please let me drink.’ 46She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ So I drank, and she also watered the camels. 47Then I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. 48Then I bowed my head and worshipped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. 49Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.”

58They called Rebekah, and said to her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ She said, ‘I will.’ 59So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men, 60and they blessed Rebekah and said to her,
‘May you, our sister, become
thousands of myriads;
may your offspring gain possession
of the gates of their foes.’
61Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.

62Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. 63Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. 64Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, 65and said to the servant, ‘Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?’ The servant said, ‘It is my master.’ So she took her veil and covered herself. 66The servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. 67Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

When I train readers for their important role in the service I use the story of Jesus meeting two disciples on the road to Emmaus, change one name to a pronoun, and ask the students to listen as if they had never heard the story before and raise a hand when they can identify the participants. No-one has yet raised a hand before I have finished. Here we have a classic example of where continuity is absolutely essential. The NRSV starts “So he said”; The New English Bible puts it “He answered”; the Good News has “he began”. That’s great if we’ve read previous verses, but not when starting at verse 34. Who is this person who is a servant to Abraham, and to whom is he talking? I appreciate that to get answers to those questions requires us to go back to the beginning of the chapter where we learn that the servant was Abraham’s oldest servant, though not named, and he is talking to Laban, brother of Rebekah, who will become Isaac’s wife, and who is part of Abraham’s extended family where he was born. This whole story is far too long to read in an Anglican Eucharist service, and there is plenty of repetition to exclude, so let’s look at what the story entails.

In ancient biblical times the man was accepted as the head of the household. Abraham was old when he fathered Isaac. Two weeks ago the reading from Genesis told us of his other son, Ishmael, born of Abraham’s servant Hagar, being sent away so that he was no longer part of the family, effectively leaving Isaac as the only son to inherit a vast fortune. Today’s reading tells of the search for a kindred woman to become Isaac’s wife. Arranged marriages still occur today in many parts of the world. In biblical times it was such a common event, and a girl grew up expecting someone to take her to be his wife even though they might never have met. Abraham’s oldest servant might well have been Eliezer of Damascus, who would inherit everything if Isaac died without children, so it is remarkable that the person seeking a bride might be the very person who would lose everything if he succeeded, yet he honoured his commitment to Abraham. Would we?

In the verses leading up to this extract the servant had been practising his lines ready for an encounter with the one whom he trusted God had chosen to be a wife for Isaac. He had travelled some distance with camels and gifts, though we aren’t told how far, and had a firm belief that God would provide, so when Rebekah turns up at the well and provides water for him and for his camels, he is overjoyed. These days, if a loving parent sought out a bride for a son I could imagine the reaction would be quite different, but we have made huge steps towards recognising women as equal to men, and true love as being more important than where the wife originated.

As would be expected in that time, Laban and his wife Bethuel, were happy to have Rebekah leave the household and travel back to where the party would find Isaac. The shift in location and the separation from kinsfolk would be somewhat like it was for “Our Mary” when she crossed the world to marry Prince Fredrick of Denmark, though, in that case, it was love which brought them together and they are frequent visitors to Australia.

On the group’s arrival where Isaac was living there was joy at a wife being found for him, and, as the saying goes, “the rest is history.” This is one of very few references in the Hebrew Scriptures to the relationship between husband and wife being one of love. Rebekah is installed as the new matriarch of the family. Isaac was reportedly a sworn bachelor and 40 years old when he found love with Rebekah, a remarkable fact for the age.

The stories in Genesis were originally passed on orally, and had variations within the different groups which followed. There is conjecture that, because we Westerners cannot pin down archeological data to correlate with the stories, that they are fictional. If the same thought process were applied to the histories of Aboriginal people in Australia we would be denying them their very real history and existence. Whereas there are many examples of conflicting information, especially in the early scriptures, they do not detract from the very real presence of these people through centuries.

Can we step back from our insistence of having everything spelled out ‘historically’ and accept the theological messages which come from passages such as these? Too often we reject the message because of some inconsequential “error”.

Trinity 4A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Psalm 13: A prayer for Deliverance from Enemies

©Kalbarri Anglican Church

1How long, O Lord?
Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy triumph over me?

3Consider me and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
4and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken,

5but I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

There is an Easter hymn which used to go “Jesus lives! No longer now can thy terror, death, appal us” but, because of the music, often came out as “Jesus lives no longer now.” Pauses, indicated by punctuation, have a profound impact on the meaning of a sequence of words. Here the psalmist is lamenting an apparent lack of response from God. “How long, O Lord? How long will you forget me? Will it be for ever? I’ve been waiting; I’ve been asking; I’ve been pleading; I’ve been crying out to you, but it seems you do not want to respond.”

Clearly the psalmist has a sense of alienation from God, but not, to his reckoning at least, of his own making. Those who wish he would give up his dedication to God are circling in anticipation of being able to be declared winners. The vultures are flying around, just waiting for the moment to strike with glee. The APBA version of the psalm ends verse 4 with “lest my foes exult at my overthrow”, which, though it is closer to the Hebrew than this translation in the NRSV, suggests that the writer has already succumbed to the attack. The tone of the psalm shows that is not true.

During a secret meeting – for which there will never be an accurate record of what was discussed – I was taken off an ordination programme just as all around me were asking if my ordination date had been set. I was shifted to another parish, and the priest there was told that I could take no leadership role for at least six months. No-one suggested I had done, or might do, anything wrong, so why six months out of leadership roles I had occupied for many years? Was an “enemy” testing my faith and hoping that I would fail? “How long, O God, must I bear the pain in my soul?” Over the years I have helped many people, in several dioceses, who have offered themselves for ordination in the Anglican Church only to be knocked back with explanations which aren’t consistent with evidence or logic. Is discernment of God’s will subordinate to that of those who might not realise they are being controlled by the devil? The enemies might claim that they have prevailed – and, unfortunately, in some cases that has clearly happened, but there is an increasing minority who are still asking God for a response.

On the cross, Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Christ, himself, had fought the devil controlling the religious establishment of the day, and even He turned his cry of frustration to His Heavenly Father. Martin Luther, among many others, raised issues with the controlling nature of the Roman Catholic Church, believing he had enough evidence to show that people were being controlled for the benefit of the Church, not for the benefit of the Good News. The examples of people resorting to this psalm go on through every generation. Whistle-blowers are persecuted for disturbing the peace, and threatened with lengthy gaol terms. Others are repeatedly ignored until they submit, or die.

For those who continue to trust in God’s steadfast love, there is hope of being able to rejoice in the salvation He offers. Can we sing to the Lord because He has dealt bountifully with them? Maybe, as true followers of Christ, we may be able to do that in the life hereafter, though it would be good to be able to do it here and now.

If you want to read the reflection on Genesis 22:1-14 see .

Trinity 3A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Matthew 10:24-39

24‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master. 25It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

26‘Have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30Even the hairs of your head are all counted, 31so do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

32‘Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

34‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,
35for I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

©Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church

In the context of the opening verse of chapter 10, in which Jesus empowers the disciples to cure the sick and to drive out unclean spirits, the opening of this scriptural passage brings us into the reality that, though we have been given powers which we would otherwise not have, we are only as capable as Christ Himself. Furthermore, we are likely to be subject to the same rejection as He was, from the same sorts of people. Let’s not forget that Jesus was unable to heal in His home town, and He was rejected by members of His own family because He kept challenging them to accept a new way of life. Jesus doesn’t want the disciples to think that they will be better than Him. What horrors befall Christ will be unavoidable for a true follower. There is no escaping that truth, and it extends to today’s world, though, depending on where we are in the world, we might face other forms of horror. To the people of the time, “Beelzebul” (or Beelzebub) meant “prince of demons”, so being associated with, and following, Beelzebul wasn’t the best place for followers of Christ. The religious authorities of the time made every effort to label Christ as Beelzebul, but thankfully others sawy through their efforts. As Christians we are to reject evil and constantly ask ourselves “what would Christ do in this situation?”

There are many ways in which we might encounter evil behaviour in our lives, and the churches are not exempt. The Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse in Institutions showed how bad an example of following Christ was set by many who should have known better, and whose very authority should reflect a different approach. Verses 26-28 tell us to not be afraid of speaking up. Those who have been part of a Rostrum group will know the promise that is made to “not be silent when I ought to speak”. All too often we act out of fear, but “the truth will set us free”. God knows everything, and would like us to spread the word about things which ought not to be, so that they can be addressed properly. Sometimes that requires us to work “behind the scenes” so that issues can be addressed before they get out of hand. We have a copy of “Blood on the Rosary” at home at the moment. It tells of the harrowing story of twins, one who became a nun, the other a priest, and the sexual abuse of children which was swept under the carpet for far too long, partly from loyalty to family and partly to avoid scandal in the church. It’s hard to stand up against family. Speaking up made a difference, despite the fact that it took a long time, and a lot of effort, to be heard. Will we learn lessons from such experiences? I doubt it. In no way do I wish to reduce the significance of any sexual abuse, but it’s not the only way in which we are mistreated by those who have some authority. I have just been told about someone who has been threatened with a loss of work for refusing to do something which would put lives at risk. Last year I dealt with a case of a casual worker who was dropped from an overworked, understaffed, situation for no apparent reason other than management wouldn’t talk. Proclaiming such issues from the rooftops may not get desirable results because it’s an all-too-familiar story, but failing to speak up wouldn’t get any improvement.

Scripture tells us that we are ALL children of God. The devoted Father loves all His children unconditionally, but He doesn’t love the sins we commit. Unlike us, He has no problem separating the two. It doesn’t matter how many birds of whatever species we count, we are still more valuable to God than they are.

In verse 32 Jesus tells us to acknowledge Him, not only in church, but in our daily lives. Let it be known – proclaim it from the rooftops – that we are dedicated to Christ, and He will be a witness of our dedication with God, but if we deny Him the respect He deserves then He will not be able to be a witness for us. It sounds Deuteronomistic – do the right thing and be blessed, do the wrong thing and be cursed – but this has to do with our allegiances, not to the love which God has for us.

Verses 34 to 39 seem so cruel, and so much against the idea of the unconditional love which God has for us, but let’s revisit that book I mentioned earlier. The message which Christ brought to us was to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves. In that context family members are neighbours – just think of Christ’s response to the question “Who is my neighbour?” When any form of abuse gets in the way of being a united family, and when we try to hide evil ways and keep people silent, we are going to divide families, friends, communities, … and churches. Where is our allegiance? Do we ask ourselves, often enough, what Jesus would do in our situation, here and now? Do we fight for the devil, or for God? Are we prepared to continue to raise concerns until those with authority acknowledge the concern and do something about it? The more I ask those questions the more I realise that I am not doing as well as I should be. How about you?